There are a handful of ways to experience Dragon Quest XI. For starters, you can simply play the game on consoles or PC, as it has been out for a while. A 3DS version of the game featuring its own visual style was also released in Japan and, remarkably, wasn’t of the “half-assed portable version of a major console title” genre. Then there is Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age for the Nintendo Switch, which has been out a while and adds a slew of content to the already sizable game. On December 4, 2020, this definitive version of the game was also made available for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC, meaning even more people will be able to access the new character-driven side quests, re-recorded music, boss fights, and quality of life changes. Additionally, it features an option to switch between 2D and 3D graphics. This simple change dramatically overhauls the experience. I recommend everybody try the Dragon Quest XI S 2D mode at least once.
On the surface, this option seems like a mere change of aesthetic. Switching to 2D mode changes the game’s art to reflect the style of earlier entries in the series from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. To me, it ends up looking a lot like Dragon Quest VI. The industry has advanced in terms of design, and has acquired a larger body of knowledge about how to approach character design, though. This fact, combined with fewer hardware limitations, means that the game is reminiscent of old titles even as it maintains a level of beauty that, to my eye, exceeds them. It is, like many elements of Dragon Quest XI S, a fine homage to the Dragon Quest games of yesteryear. It’s more than that, though. It’s a rare opportunity to play a game that inherently invites direct comparisons between contemporary and retro game design.
The approaches developers take when they use a bird’s-eye view of a 2D world differ radically from the ways they approach a more modern, third-person game with 3D environments. This is because both of these styles have their own benefits and detriments, much of which pertains to the conveyance of details.
In Dragon Quest XI S: Definitive Edition’s 2D mode, it is easier to see what is on all sides of the player character. As you’d expect, this isn’t possible in the 3D mode, as the camera can only point in one direction. This obscuring of information can lead to a small sense of vulnerability, even if it’s often imperceptible. The effect is far more noticeable in horror titles. Vertical objects can also obscure vision in the 3D world, which means turning a corner can lead to a surprise. In 2D mode, however, you have access to more information. As a result, it’s possible to spot details about what may be on the other side of a wall. The main limitation to sight in the retro style mode is the screen size. Unlike in 3D mode, it isn’t possible to gaze long distances across the horizon. Instead, everything is framed within the confines of the screen, creating a stark contrast between what the player sees and what the character could theoretically see. Mystery consistently unfolds as you travel about due to this. Sometimes the camera will pan away from the character to draw focus to spectacles or characters. Replaying sections in 2D de-familiarized me with its locales , leading me to focus on different aspects of the world and design.
In fact, the main benefit of these modes, beyond nostalgia, is in the way it adds replay value to the game. Remembering how different moments made me feel on my first playthrough of a chapter meant it was effortless to spot the techniques used to recreate those moments in ways that still feel evocative. By the very nature of the modes, the game’s developers were required to use different tool kits to construct important elements across both modes. These elements include things like building atmosphere, portraying scale, depicting weather, imbuing emotion, manipulating tension, developing urgency, and embedding a sense of grandeur. For me, the “how” is about as interesting as the “what.”
A potential drawback to the 2D mode is that the way to access it isn’t as convenient as, say, switching on the fly. Instead, players have to visit save points to make the change. Worse, they have to begin play from the start of one of the game’s chapters. This isn’t to say that progress is lost, though. Character abilities, stats, and any items they have that aren’t tied to the main story carry over. I recommend completing a chapter before switching modes. Repeating a chapter in 2D instead of 3D can be a novel way to grind some experience points, too.
Another drawback, depending on who you ask, is the absence of voice acting and cutscenes in Dragon Quest XI S: Definitive Edition’s 2D mode. These parts of the game can be absolutely stunning, and some of the acting can really help sell a moment. On the other side of the token, pixel art characters can offer something of value through virtue of a lack of detail. It might, for example, be easier to project onto these characters. With fewer features, there’s a lot of room for imagination as players rely on dialogue to bring personalities to the forefront. It is possible for particular voice or look can create a bias or negative association in a player. I think of Erik as someone who is both dashing and a tad magnetic. If someone doesn’t like finer details of his 3D model, he might only be magnetic. If they take deep issue with a finer detail, even his personality might be rendered obnoxious by association. Sprites just feel like more of a framework to hang ideas and preferences off. The 3D models in this game are well-designed, though, and are pretty consistently compelling.
To be clear, I am not saying that there isn’t anything lost in translation with the 2D mode. I also doubt that it will be the preferred way to experience Dragon Quest XI S: Definitive Edition for most people. This is why I am partially astonished that it was implemented at all. It is a bit of an odd inclusion, but after a lot of thought, I really do think it’s just a mixture of nostalgia and novelty. I don’t believe it functions as well as a stand-alone mode, so it might be best to see it as a bonus to supplement the main game. That way you don’t have to worry about the trade-offs between the modes. Playing the game both ways, in alternation as I did, is an amazing way to more fully explore this content rich world. It might even deepen your fondness and appreciation for the game.
Dragon Quest XI S: Echoes of an Elusive Age is currently available for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch.